The soft light of a summer morning flooded down upon the inner courtyard of Dunwood castle in Dorset County, England. Small children ran about laughing gaily as they played various games. The massive gray stone architecture of the walls and arches about them stood aloof to the childish noise.
In one of the doorways, leaning comfortably against a tall, stone pier stood a lad of about sixteen. His green eyes followed the children and his mouth curved into a quiet, amused smile. The sun fingered its way into his short blond hair, and illuminated his polished wood lute, which was slung across his back. This boy had the distinguished job of court minstrel in the court of Royal Duke Dallas and his son, Prince Macnair.
Suddenly, the latter royalty appeared, his youthful face brazen with anger. The children scattered as the sixteen-year old prince stormed into the middle of their game of Ring around the Rosie.
“Arlen!” Prince Macnair bellowed as he made his way to the minstrel.
“Ay, my lord?” The minstrel replied.
“Is it true that thou doest think I could be defeated me in knightly combat by the likes of you?” the Prince flamed, his strong jaw tightly clenched.
Arlen looked aghast. “Sire, where didst thou hear this tale?”
“From thyine sister. The little wench actually told it to me… face to face, no less. Well, out with it, ‘tis true?”
Arlen’s heart sunk. His younger sister, Echo, had always thought too highly of him, and now her good opinion had gotten him into a ticklish situation. The Prince was not someone to get into a physical combat with; he had earned the reputation of a fierce fighter early on. Arlen did not know how to reply, so he simply stared into the fiery brown eyes of his accuser. Prince Macnair’s patience broke.
“Well then, since thou doest have no answer, we shall see if thou canst defeat me. In two weeks time at 10 o’clock, thou must appear in the jousting lists, trained and armed, ready to fight against me. I’d like to see thee try!” With that, the prince turned on his heel and began to leave, but suddenly stopped. He turned back and added “Oh and if thou doest not come, I shall personally come and find thee… and kill thee for being a coward.” Then he disappeared with the same fury with which he came.
Arlen stood stock still, shocked to his core. Become as good as a knight… in two weeks? That was impossible. Every knight had years of training and squire-hood under his belt. He did not even know how to fist fight, let only joust with a lance or sword. Oh, why had he not spoken when given the chance!
Some small gentle hand touched his. Looking there, Arlen saw a small maid, barely four years old, staring up at him with an inquisitive look in her large, blue eyes. “Are you going to fight him?” she asked softly, as if too afraid to even let the walls hear her words.
Arlen smiled at the awed, innocent curiosity of the maid. Kneeling down, he answered, “Of course I shall. I must, my life depends on it.
Later that day when the sun began to set over the horizon, Arlen could be seen sitting cross-legged on one of the lower walls surrounding the inner castle grounds. He faced the setting sun. A furrowed brow, squinted, searching eyes, and a set jaw froze his face into a hard, contemplative expression. How on earth was he going to prepare? He had no trainer, no armor, not even a horse.
The wooded English countryside rolled away from him like an illuminated green ocean. Peasants trekked home, while an eagle screeched as it soared high above. The mundane noises of the servants’ voices and the ringing pound of a hammer hitting the anvil faded away from Arlen’s worried, preoccupied mind. He did not even fully hear the amateur soft strums of one of the little children testing his lute.
Something randomly hit his left leg, disturbing his day-dreams. Arlen glanced down briefly then back up; he did a double take as he fully saw what had hit him. It was a note, written in clear scrolled cursive on a scrap of cream colored cloth. Arlen picked it up and examined it. His name graced the front; on the back read “What man desireth he can nay have, what man workth for ‘tis his to gain.”
Arlen leaned over the wall to perhaps get a glimpse of this mystic poet. The light brown haired head of Foster, the head falconer, greeted him.
“Ay, Foster,” Arlen called. The man looked around on his level for a bit, until finally, turning around, glanced upwards and saw the minstrel. A broad friendly smile graced the man’s bearded face.
“So ‘tis the brazen warrior-minstrel, eh?” Foster inquired rhetorically.
Arlen hung his head a little. “I don’t know what to do. I have nothing, no horse, no armor, nothing.”
“Thou hast pluck… or at least thou had it last time I checked. Now I’m not so sure.”
“Hast thou ever had to fight a Prince before, one whose been trained?”
“No, but I’ve seen the Crusades.” Foster turned around and began to walk away.
“Wait…,” Arlen said slowly as what his friend had said sunk in. Quick as a cat, Arlen leapt down from the wall and pursued Foster into the falcon house, where they kept the falcons. “Would thou happen to know anything about knightly jousting or something like that?” the now excited minstrel inquired of the falconer.
“Perhaps,” Foster replied with a sly grin on his face. “What would thou needth to know?”
“How not to get killed in a jousting match,” Arlen explained, “perhaps even knowing how to win one. Could thou… I mean, would thou, teach me?”
Foster looked at him skeptically. “Remember, bard, thou doest need to know this skill in two weeks, not two years.” He stopped and appeared to be thinking.
Arlen’s heart pounded like a drum in his chest as he anticipated Foster’s answer. If he did not win, he would most likely die; if he died, his precious sister Echo would be left without a friend in the world.
“Alright,” Foster finally said, “Here ’tis my final deal: thou supplith the armor and horse, I shall offer thee lessons every day after thine morning session with the princess, Jade.”
“Agreed,” Arlen quickly declared. He smiled thankfully, and warmly shook the hand of his new teacher. The minstrel practically danced out of the falcon house and into the bustle of the inner grounds, next to the keep and inside the inner high wall. Arlen’s mind worked quickly: Where could he find armor and a horse? The stables had plenty of war horses to choose from, but they were the Prince’s and Duke’s private property. Armor littered the castle keep, but it too, was reserved for the royal family.
I shall have to act craftily about this, Arlen thought, andyet nay steal. The bell of the Benedictine monastery tolled their solemn warning as the sun sank lower over the horizon. Thatcanst wait till the morrow, he finished in his head as he entered the keep through a small door cut into the gray limestone. The dark winding stairwell that Arlen entered greeted him with its black approval.
The minstrel felt his way up the stairs, humming a Gaelic tune that he had memorized ages ago. He barely noticed the soft footsteps and sound of rustling skirts that reverberated off the walls in front of him. Arlen stopped and looked up, glaring into the shrouding darkness.
The soft reply came. “Echo?”
Arlen smiled at his sister’s answer. “’Tis I, Arlen. I know thou hast a light, come, show it.”
The small flickering flame of a wax candle appeared out of the darkness and illuminated the narrow stairwell. “T’was not sure of thine identity,” Echo said, her blue eyes mischievous in the meager firelight. Her beautiful brown hair hung about her face, loose and full. The smooth lines of her white face softened away into shadow.
“How ‘tis thyine day?” Arlen asked, debating if he should bring up the challenge.
“Fine and thine?”
Arlen looked down and away, then back at the clever eyes of his 15-year-old sister. “Alright, I fathom. Thanks to thee, I fight the Prince in knightly combat in a fortnight.”
Echo’s face went pale. “So he actually came and found thee? I never thought he would. Everyone knows that thou art fitter than he, not to mention stronger.”
“That’s just it,” Arlen said, trudging up to the step on which Echo stood. “I am not stronger than Prince Macnair. If I were, I wouldst have no qualms about battling the lord. Echo, I know thou doest think highly of me, but now thou hast gone too far. I am not thyine almighty savior who shall be able to rescue thee from everything that cometh thine way.”
“What does thine name mean?”
Arlen gave a confused, annoyed look. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“Everything. Thine name means ‘Pledge’. What ‘tis a pledge?”
“A promise of what?” Echo’s eyes probed the evading look on her brother’s face. “Thou really doest not think thou can do it. I’m surprised; thou art usually all for challenges.”
“I’ve heard that today,” Arlen replied. A long silence enveloped the pair as they stood in the pitch black stairway, with the tiny flickering candle.
“Thou still hast not answered my question,” Echo astutely pointed out.
“A Pledge is a promise…” Arlen stopped and sighed. Why was he doing this, indulging his sister this pleasure? “A promise… of… devotion and loyalty to those one makes the pledge to, an act of… love.” He took another step up, then another.
Echo smiled. “If thou does this, to whom will thou be making a pledge to?”
“Ay, but not just me. How about all the people who want thee to succeed? There are about twenty other folk who knowth about this event, and want thee to win. Do it for the poor peasants that thou knowst, do it for me, and do it for thyine honor’s sake.”
Before giving a reply, Arlen reached the top of the stairs, and firmly placed his hand on the handle. Echo placed her hand on his shoulder. “I love thou,” she whispered into his ear, then let go and faded away into the black of the stairway.
“NO! Thou art doing it all wrong, bard!” Foster bellowed from the side of the lists. Arlen stopped swinging his makeshift sword, panting a little, and glared at the falconer. “Thou does not swing it from side to side like a winnower does his basket. Thou doest cut and slice thy weapon back and forth, with vigor.”
The minstrel thrust his stick-sword out in a great arc, coming down on the pathetic little hanging bag with such strength that he actually caused the bag to drop from its post.
“Better,” was Foster’s only comment.
It was very amusing and strange to see a court minstrel sitting astride a beam on legs, thwacking a sack full of rocks with all his might as it hung from a branch, while a falconer shouted at him nearby. In truth, both young men know it looked ridiculous, but neither cared. Both had the spark of battle in their eyes, even if they were far from appearing ready.
Arlen still had armor to come up with, and a real horse and sword. He knew better than to foolishly hope that they were going to fall out of the sky. So, he had been doing some searching. One problem reared its ugly head; no fruit had yet shown itself. Still lacking armor and a horse, Arlen decided to at least train so that went he did get the armor, he would know something about how to deal with it.
Nearly 20 minutes later, Arlen let his stick drop to the ground, arms exhausted and chest heaving. He leaned over to rest his head down on the beam he sat on. “No… more…, Foster, please.”
Foster smiled and leapt over the list gate. “Of course, my little friend. Thou hast done a mighty effort.” He assisted Arlen off the wooden “horse” and waited for him to catch his breath.
Arlen felt like collapsing onto the ground and never getting up again, but forced his legs to move in something like a walk. He waved his hand in gratitude to Foster, and teetered away towards the castle. From above him, through a window in one of the towers, watched Prince Macnair, glowering darkly.
Weakly, Arlen made it to the strong limestone wall of the tower and rested his weary body against it. He never would have imagined that hitting a bag of stones with a stick could make one aches so. However, he needed to get used to this heavy labor if he was going to engage in the battle, which was now only a week and a half away.
A short distancelittle ways away standing with a group of peasant children, stood a monk. His brown habit and average sized stomach caused him to resemble a barrel covered over with a waterfall of brown sacks. The monk was animatedly recounting a parable to the group of youthful peasant workers, his flowing voice rising and falling like a wind on the sea. The appearance of this monk did not draw Arlen’s attention to him: it was his tale. Arlen had assumed that the content of the
story came from the Holy Scriptures, but to his surprise, he found the story to be one that he himself told often, the story of ten princesses.
“Several minutes passedt,” the monk spun, “before the princesses realized that this Prince was nay real.” Arlen immediately could tell that the story was nearly over. He knew that the princesses would try to slay the Prince but he would sing so sweetly that they were would be bewitched and left leave him alone forever.
Suddenly, several mothers came by to round up their children, and so the story ended. Arlen looked curiously at the monk, as he blessed the children and turned to go. Something in his young heart made him call out to him.
“Ay there! Father.” The monk turned around and spotted Arlen advancing to meet him.
“Hello there young fellow, how mayst I show thee the love of God?”
“Father, I heard thy story, or at least the end of it. T’was a tale told by bards; am I right?”
“Ay, thou art right. I hear it once from a minstrel who had broken his leg and sought refuge in our abbey. Why doest thou ask, lad?”
“I am a minstrel, good friar, and could tell the story myself. ‘Tis a well known one among the people here. Thou doest take ill folk in then?”
“Ay, ‘tis a monk’s duty unto the people and to God. Doest thou seek shelter and aid?”
“Nay, but my sister may be in need of a medicine. She is… a strange maid, likes the dark and ‘tis rather sickly.”
The monk smiled broadly. “I shall help thee all I can, lad. Bring a sack and I shall fill it with all thou needth. I advise that thou traverse with me to St. Paulinus Abbey; it may prove well for thee.”
Arlen, slightly puzzled yet thankful for finding a medicine for his ailing sister, carried out the monk’s request of bringing a sack. He trotted off to find Foster and tell him where he was headed and on to receive the required item. The falconer, covered in muck from a recent excursion, obliged him the sack and sent him on his way. Arlen met up with the kindly monk at the portcullis to the outer wall, the assignedment meeting place. The pair strolled through the yawning archway out into the open moor along a nearly deserted gravel road.
“I ought to have informed thee of this earlier but my name is Brother Barnabas,” the monk offered.
“Oh, pleasure to meet thee Brother Barnabas. I hail as Arlen.”
“Fine name. It means pledge, I believe.”
“Ay father.” Arlen was plunged into a deluge of remembrance of his conversation with Echo three days back. Pledge: the hidden meaning of his duty to uphold his appointment and challenge hung on and was buried in that word. He felt better about the whole ordeal but still had many doubts. Could he find the armor and horse? Even if he could, would he be ready and able to fight and defeat the Prince?
The bell of the abbey pulled Arlen out of his reverie and back into the present.
“‘Tis eleven, judging by the tolling of Old John over there,” Brother Barnabas commented.
“Appears to be so,” Arlen added. The sun poured down over the pair as they traversed the dirt road. Life seemed to slow and to cause the world to pause in its eternal spinning. Minutes slipped by like a snail along a marble floor.
Finally, the reddish brown stone of the abbey walls appeared far away to the right under the stretching reaches of the forest edge. As Arlen and Brother Barnabas neared the solemn structure, an eagle swooped down and tried to grab the sack off Arlen’s back. Quick as lighting,
Arlen knocked the bird off with his arm, his heart pounding in his chest. The Eagle screeched but wheeled away and took to the skies again.
“Odd,” Arlen shakily said half to himself and half to the humble monk beside him.
“Ay,” Barnabas replied, “Never have I seen such an occurence.”
The door to the abbey greeted them with iron bound, oak panels framed by a curving red stone arch. Barnabas pulled out a large, black key, fitted it into a hidden keyhole, and pushed open the door, offering the way to Arlen. The youth passed through and was enveloped by a heavy odor of old manuscripts and wood that hads been cleaned with vinegar and water, whichwith is a very distasteful smell.
“Well, make thyself at home, dear Arlen,” Brother Barnabas instructed., “Thou mayst explore as thee wishes, only do not enter into that room. ‘Tis reserved for the monks only, unless by strict permission from the Abbot. I shall return with thy sack and some medicines in a moment. Thou sayst that thine sister ‘tis ill?”
Arlen nodded, “Ay, father, ill. With what I know not. She has spasms every once in a while, and sometimes goes into such coughing fits that no one can stop her, not even I.”
Barnabas took on a look of deep thought and shuffled off down the long, dark corridor to the left.
Arlen watched the monk shuffle off to the medicine room and smiled to himself. Curiosity pricked in the tips of his fingers and made him think harder thant he ought to have. What could a monastery be hiding? Did they keep prisoners there and later sell them? Arlen’s overactive imagination ran wild. The minstrel simply stood in front of the door watching it with intense desire. There was nothing unusual about the door; it had the same iron bracing and hinges as the front door, and the same oak panels. Something inside him lured him towards the handle, while something else repelled him from it.
Suddenly, he placed his hand on the handle and tried turning it. The lever stuck – locked. Arlen stepped away, puzzled and a little disappointed. Why had Brother Barnabas told him not to touch it when he knew nothing would happen?
“May I help thee, lad?” said an ancient voice from behind Arlen.
The boy whirled around, panic and guilt gripping his mind. There stood a tall man, dressed in the habit of a Benedictine Abbot. His long gray beard hung past his waist and stood out against the black backdrop of the woolen habit.
“Uh, nay Father,” Arlen stammered, feeling a blush crawl over his face.
“Barnabas brought thee here, did he not?”
“What doest thou desire to know about the room beyond the door?” the Abbot quickly inquired.
Arlen nearly swallowed his tongue in surprise. “Ho-o-ow d- did-d thou knn-owst that I wished to… see behind the… door?”
“I can see it in thine young eyes, my dear boy,” the Abbot mildly replied. “I can also see that thou needth something.”
Arlen could have fainted; this abbot must be supernatural to see his thoughts. “I do, Abbot,” quietly uttered Arlen.
“Come,” the Abbot ordered kindly. He passed by Arlen and headed directly to the door. Timidly, Arlen followed the old wrinkled man into the forbidden space. He stopped dead in his tracks; the room was completely empty except for a reading table in the middle of the room with
a huge book open on it. The Abbot strolled to the table and began flipping pages. Arlen waited at the door, which he left ajar, his heart in his throat. He knew he had done wrong, and he felt terribley about it.
“Why doest thou wait at the door?” The Abbot inquired. His black eyes probed Arlen’s face.
“I wish to be able to hear Barnabas when he comest back.”
“I told him where we would be.”
“Oh.” Arlen stood shaking, feeling totally on the spot and totally exposed. He slinked his way over to the black wood reading desk and remotely peered at the pages of the book. They were covered with a small, neat scribble that he could not read; but then again he could not read anything.
“Thou said that thou wished for something,” the Abbot started.
“I do,” Arlen replied.
“What does thou wish?”
Several trivial things popped into Arlen’s head, a better job, more substantial food and clothing. Even the need of the armor and horse for the battle came to mind. But before all that, washing all the other items out of the way, came the thought of Echo. His sister and her health had troubled his days since their parents had died when he was nine. Oh, to see his sister happy and out in the sunshine again, as opposed to the dark stairway and dim room to which she desperately confined herself. That was what really mattered, more than the better life, more than even the all-important armor and horse.
“My sister to be well and alive,” Arlen suddenly blurted out, his heart giving a little hiccup. Tears flew to his eyes and poured down his usually dry and strong cheeks.
The Abbot smiled. “I am glad thou said that. For thou could have wished for a million other things for thyself, but to have a heart that burns with a desire to see others first ‘tis a mighty gift.”
Footsteps resounded softly from the hall behind the door. Arlen gave a questioning look to the Abbot, who waved a blessing and his consent to go. Arlen, trembling, left the room and found Barnabas with the filled sack through a haze of confusion and upset emotions. He left St. Paulinus Abbey with an unsure, unbelieving heart, and the sack over his shoulder.
The call of a cat-bird woke Arlen from a sound sleep. Gray morning light filtered through the tall, narrow window which served as the only light source in his and Echo’s room. Yesterday seemed so far away and yet the Abbot’s words so close. He never thought that he was good at trying to put others first. Apparently, he had been wrong.
Arlen rolled over and glanced at Echo’s bed. It was empty as a cleaned out bowl. Odd; Echo never rose earlier than he did. Arlen sat up and looked around the bare room. The chair and little table with his lute laying on top of it, the bed he was in and Echo’s, everything was in place; except something stood on the table that made Arlen jumped.
Like a half man, with a shield and lance leaning on it, stood a helm, breastplate with a fauld, and pauldrons. The iron of the armor shone in the pale morning light, and the bronze on the pauldrons and helmet glinted like jewels. The helm, the crowning glory, held Arlen’s attention longest. Bronze and iron finely crafted, it appeared strong yet light. An eagle facing
forward and spread winged topped the visor, and a white and blue plume cascaded out of the mount on top and down the right side.
Arlen slid out of bed, eyes fixed on the armor. Everything about it seemed made for him, especially the helmet. Draped over the chair lay a hauberk, a coif, a pair of gauntlets and bases. Sitting on the table were a shining pair of greaves. The Shield, argent and azure like the plume, proclaimed a coat of arms depicting an Eagle ready to kill its prey. Entwined in the wings there was a banner and a string of olive leaves. The banner read “Pledge” in sable ink. Arlen sank to his knees; this armor had been made for him, all the way downne to the shield. The Lance mimicked the heraldic colors on the shield in stripes; a sword, obviously damascened, hung by the demi- knight’s side.
One question rose in his mind: Where had this come from?
The door to the room squeaked open, and Echo, arrayed in green, entered.
“Where… did this come from?” Arlen asked, rushing over to his sister.
Echo smiled. “‘Tis for me to know and thee to findth out. I can tell thee this; it came from an unlikely friend.”
Arlen, intoxicated with surprise and joy, enveloped his feeble sister in a hug and danced with her around the room, laughing aloud. Echo, clinging to her brother, lent her voice to the merriment in a quiet laugh.
“I must tell Foster!” Arlen exclaimed, and kissing his sister firmly on the top of her head, dashed out the door.
And Foster joined into the merriment. When Arlen inquired if he had given the armor, Foster shook his head and said “Nay, dear Arlen. ‘Tis a thing too tasteful for me to do.”
Over the next four days, Arlen could not truly focus on his real job, whether it was playing his lute for the royal family or for the peasants. All he could think of was the battle and the armor. Foster and he had been practicing with the impressive armor early in the morning so as not to draw attention from unwanted eyes. The Prince, however, seemed to know of the armor meetings in a way that displeaseds both Foster and Arlen. Macnair had withdrawn from all social life with the peasants, and it was pestering Arlen.
One day, Prince Macnair suddenly informed Arlen that a horse had become available and told him to meet in the courtyard outside the keep the next day. Arlen, shocked, still agreed to the meeting. So oOn the following day, Arlen came to the appointed place, only to find Gilroy, the Royal Duke’s accomplice, and no sign of either horse or prince. The minstrel sensed that this was not a friendly meeting.
“Morning, bard,” Gilroy slyly greeted slyly, his green eyes flashing deviously.
“Mornin’,” Arlen nodded, and began to turn back the way he came.
Suddenly, Gilroy leapt at Arlen and got him about the neck with a blood-curdling cry. Totally surprised, Arlen struggled to get his neck free. The two fell to the ground in a rolling, struggling mass of young men, kicking up dust everywhere. Arlen finally got a hand free and hit Gilroy’s unprotected black-haired head. The older man rolled away, and lay still for a moment.
Arlen slowly began to rise, shaking. Gilroy, cursing under his breath, rose and swung out at Arlen. The minstrel leapt to the side, barely avoiding the punch. He delivered one of his own, and made contact with Gilroy’s stomach. Arlen’s adrenaline made his head pound, and caused
him to stand slightly taller. His self-esteem rose and so did his pride. He looked away from Gilroy for a split second, and it cost him dearly. The servant took his chance, lunging at Arlen and getting him pinned to the ground. The minstrel fell and knocked the back of this head against a pebble. Suddenly everything went black and he knew no more.
A livid pain awoke Arlen to complete blackness. Every inch of his body ached and his head pounded, though not from adrenaline. He groaned and tried to roll over to see where he was, but winced and decided to stay where he lay. A hand lay on his chest, a soft feminine hand that looked as if it had never seen the sun.
“Echo?” Arlen groaned.
“Echo?” The soft voice replied.
“What happened?” Arlen half-yawned, half-gasped.
Echo’s voice was hard and scolding. “Thou got into a fight with Gilroy, and he knocked thee out. Sprained thine ankle, and wrist too.”
“A monk by the name of Brother Barnabas.” Echo softly answered.
The minstrel let out an exasperated sigh and lay back down. If only I had not let my head get swollen, Arlen muttered to himself in his head. “What now?”
“Thou shalt stay in bed for three days. No budging – I want thee to heal, not kill thyself.”
“Three days! I shall get killed if I nay fight. The battle’s in two… can I not rest until that day and then fight and then sleep… most likely eternally.”
Echo had no response to that. She simply brushed Arlen’s hair back from his face and hummed a Gaelic lullaby. Arlen knew she would avoid the question with this tactic, but he did not try to bring up the conversation again. He had to fight, love and life dependeds on it. His armor could not truly secure his wrist or ankle, and Foster would mostly likely never agree to leaving either unbound. Nothing seemed to work in Arlen’s mind, except not fighting, which was not an option. Arlen rested still ion the soft surface on which he lay and listened to his sister’s singing. His eyes began to droop, and he slowly drifted off to sleep, tormented with dreams of armor and horses and eagles.
The days passed with agonizing pain and boredom. After the first day, Arlen got up and tested his ankle. It burned in pain and he quickly got off it. Next, he tried his wrist; he picked up the cup which lay beside his bed, but he hastily dropped it as the fiery pain shot through his injured wrist. In spite of both failed tests, Arlen tried both again and again throughout the day when Echo was not present.
The next day, the day of the battle, Foster came in the bedroom to check on his student. Arlen was in the midst of walking around, limping terrible and sucking in his breath every time he put weight on the ankle. “Art thou alright?” Foster inquired, rushing quickly to Arlen’s side.
“Ay, Foster, really.” Arlen hobbled over to the mail covered chair and sat down.
The falconer gave him a skeptical look. “Thou art limping about like a whipped pup. Why aren’t thou in bed resting?”
“Because I’m fine… my ankle just hurts a tad.”
“Thy wrist? Thou shaltl not fight without a strong wrist.”
Arlen offered the hurt right wrist to Foster and prayed that he would not wince. He did.
“Thou canst not fight with a wrist in that poor a shape!” Foster ordered, placing it back on Arlen’s lap where it had rested.
“What if we braced it with a leather vambrance or splint? That way I can hold the lance at least. Besides, I can rest the lance against my side to help.” Arlen pleaded with his eyes, hoping that his teacher would say yes.
Foster thought about it, glancing at the armor sitting idle in the corner behind Arlen, and at the wrist and ankle. “No, I shall not let you. I will fight in thy stead.”
“Nay! ‘Tis against the agreement. I shall not allow thee get be killed for treason just because thou art concerned for my personal safety, which I’m already putting on the line.” Arlen’s face hardened with wild desire.
“Bard… Arlen, thou cannot fight. Let it go; the Prince will not kill thee if thou doest not come, I’ll make sure he does not.” Not letting his pupil say another word, Foster left, dejected and frustrated.
Arlen felt like screaming. After all the work they had gone through of learning each piece of armor and each tactic of battle, Foster was going to give up. Well, Arlen the Pledge was not; he had to do this, not for himself but for his sister and for his honor, for all people who thought that they could never conquer their fears. From the watchtower just outside the window, a guard called, “9 o’clock and all tis well!”
Nine… the battle had been set for 10 o’clock sharp in the lists just outside the inner walls. Arlen still had an hour to find a horse and suit up. Searching the room, Arlen found a staff; after a few more minutes of scouring, he found several bandages and even a leather splint for his wrist. He secured his ankle and wrist with the respective dressings and struggled into his mail armor, bracing the helmet, breastplate and shield to his back. Finally, he tossed a cloak over his head and body for disguise. Just in case I must use Echo’s stairway or Foster is around, he thought as he fastened it around him. Grabbing the oaken staff, the undercover Arlen headed for the door, and slipped through it, out into the winding hall.
The halls proved empty the further Arlen went. They must all be at the lists, he thought as he rounded a corner. He drew back as he saw Prince Macnair standing there in counsel with his father, Duke Dallas. The elder lord held a misercordia in his hand.
“Use this to put the boy out of his misery, should the bard dare rise and attempt combat with thee.” Duke Dallas handed the dagger to Macnair, who already had his armor on.
“Ay, father. And if he dare not show his lowly face?”
“Kill him with it. His room ‘tis just down the hall.” He pointed towards the corner behind which Arlen now stood.
The prince nodded and bowed to the duke as the elder man strode away down the hall in the opposite direction. “I shall save the little bastard the trouble of coming,” Prince Macnair muttered to himself. He began heading towards Arlen. The minstrel’s heart nearly stopped; the Duke condoned his death! His mouth went dry and the back of his head started to pound. Suddenly, Prince Macnair was right in front of him. Arlen ducked his head and muttered in his best, old man impersonation, “E‘cuse me, your lordship.”
“Ha, move on, you old bag!” Prince Macnair shoved Arlen in the direction away from the minstrel’s room. Arlen stumbled and prayed that the armor on him would not jingle. A few more steps and he would be at Echo’s stairwell. Take it or not? Yes, it was closest to the lists. He reached for the handle to the door but it opened and Echo stepped out.
“Oh, hello there aged father,” she sweetly said, bowing a little.
“Ay, there, my dear,” Arlen cackled back. Echo smiled and headed off towards the room.
Arlen instinctively grabbed her arm. Echo let out a scream and hit Arlen’s hand. “Echo!” Arlen rebuked in his own hushed voice. Echo’s eyes grew huge; “Arlen?” The boy nodded, and pulled his sister into the stairway.
“Now, listen, do not go to our room; Prince Macnair’s there and out to kill me. Stay in thy stairwell or somewhere, but don’t go to the room.”
“What art thou doing out of bed?” Echo hotly inquired, supporting her brother.
“I am heading to the lists to fight. No, thou art not going to stop me and thou art certainly not making me go back to bed.”
Echo opened her mouth to speak but shut it and looked hurt. She sighed heavily and bit her lip. “Alright, I shall not make thy lie down… or even stop thee from fighting Macnair. Be careful though; I want thee in one piece at the end of this.”
Arlen smiled and hugged his sister fiercely, nearly losing his balance. Echo assisted him down the stairs and out into the open air of the hot, June morning. Glancing around, Arlen spotted Foster leading a horse from the stables, a horse that he had never seen before. Its body was white as milk and its mane and tail as black as night. Heart racing with anticipation, Arlen sneakily hobbled over to the falconer and the horse.
“Fine horse ther’, young man,” Arlen faked in his old man accent.
Foster whirled around and smiled at Arlen. “Thank ye, father.”
Arlen nodded. “Doest thou need that horse?” The man looked at him quizzically.
“What doest a man of thy age need a war horse for?”
“For a battle with the Prince,” Arlen said in his own voice yet still very low. Foster’s eyes grew large. “Nay can’t be… Arlen?”
“Ay, now I’m dress in armor and have my shield. We can get a lance easy as a snap. Hurry, we don’t have much time.”
“But, no! Thou canst nay joust the Prince. Not until thou hast all thine armor on.”
Arlen smiled, surprised. He laughed, the first time in since the accident. Foster was back. The youthful pair traversed over to the lists, only to be greeted by a crowd of people. The news of the fated battle had spread wide across Dorset County and caused a number of people to make their way to Dunwood Castle. Arlen surveyed the seats on either side of the list rails, and spotted an extremely distinguished looking personage on a slightly elevated row of seats, a gentleman in richly adorned garments.
“Ah, I see that thou hast spotted the Royal Duke of Somerset, Lord William of Somerton. I guess that thy knightly joust is a bit more colorfully interesting than we thought,.” Foster offered to Arlen as he drew him over to a gray cloth tent.
Foster acted as squire and fully suited the minstrel-turned-warrior. Arlen emerged a different figure; helmet on, visor down and dressed in chain mail, he looked like a fighter. His surcoat told the crowd which of the opponents stood before them, leaning slightly on his lance. The eagle, spread-winged on his chest, made Arlen think of his pledge, of his name, of his sister. It pained him that Echo would not see him fight for her and the peasants that supported him.
“How dost thou feel?” Foster asked, coming up beside Arlen, in his motley armor.
“Nervous, if I can be truthful.”
A roar rose from the crowd as Prince Macnair, glaring at Arlen, entered the field. Something in Arlen’s stomach turned and his heart skipped a beat. His murderer stared intently and deviously at him, sizing up the minstrel. Arlen did the same, and found Macnair dressed in
nearly complete armor and mounting a black stallion. The minstrel painstakingly mounted his steed and immediately felt the pain in his ankle double.
‘Tis going to hurt, he thought as he slowly walked over to his end of the lists. Out of the corner of his eyes, Arlen saw something in blue quickly crossing the lawn to his tent. Glancing there, he saw something that made his heart nearly stop: his sister Echo, his darkness-loving Echo, standing stoically, her brown hair billowing in the wind. Her blue dress mimicked her hair and reflected the light a bit.
“Knights ready!” exclaimed a colorfully dressed page in the middle of the long lists. Arlen hoisted his lance into his right armpit and winced, his wrist burning with fiery pain.
“Commence!” the page yelled and both youths charged. The lists seemed to stretch longer and longer until Prince Macnair actually came within 10 yards of Arlen. Suddenly, the two hit, Arlen straight on Macnair’s shield, Macnair on Arlen’s. Both lances split and both fighters fell to the ground. Arlen hit the ground on his right arm, letting a scream escape him. His wrist twisted anew; what made it worse was his good left wrist stuck in the straps of the shield. The Prince came up and over to Arlen, sword drawn and raise. He came down on Arlen’s helmet, but was deflected by Arlen’s instinctive defense roll to the side.
Arlen rose and regretted it the instant he did. Not thinking, he forgot to draw his sword and simply blocked the raining blows of the Prince’s sword and let his wrist hang limp. He forced his mind to think and work. After about 3 minutes, the field had hushed to a silence except for the clash of sword on shield and the efforts of both young men. Finally, Arlen drew his sword and yelled a battle cry, “ECHO!” He fell to on Prince Macnair’s neck. The armor of the other barely withheld the blow. The Prince staggered back exhausted and stunned.
The sun grew hot as it shone on the metal helmets and breastplates. It flashed off the moving swords and cause both Macnair and Arlen to sweat inside their heavy chain mail. Another four minutes passedt and still neither man fell, neither stopped. Suddenly, the two pulled apart from each other and toppled to the ground, panting. Not a sound could be heard across that awed field. Arlen thought of giving up. His wrist burned like a roaring blaze too hot to bear, his ankle too, his head pounded and ached, and all the energy and life was draining away from his limbs. A second thought popped into his head; Prince Macnair lay on the ground as well, nearly dying.
Arlen, heaving himself up, knelt above Macnair and said through his visor, “Does thou ask for succor?”
Macnair growled through his helmet, “Never. Not until thou forceth me to scream it.”
Arlen, provoked, thrust his sword down just to the left of the Prince’s neck and turned the edge of the blade towards it so that it touched Macnair’s now exposed neck. A gasp rippled through the crowd. The Prince shrieked, “Mercy!” Arlen at once released the pressure from his defeated opponent’s neck and rose to his feet. The page jumped into the lists and assisted the Prince to his feet. The crowd erupted in a mixed ocean of loud cheers and awed whispers as they realized who had won.
“Thou shalt never get away with thisese, bard!” the Prince yelled as the page lead him away.
Arlen did not speak, but simply lifted his visor. A pair of arms flew around Arlen, and Echo squeezed him tight.
“Thou hast done it! Thou hast won against the fiercest fighter thy age in the county, and thou did it with injuries and style.”
“Aw, that’s flattery.” Arlen protested. “What art thou doing out here, O darkness lover?”
“To see thee fight of course, and did I ever.” She embraced him again and rested her head on his metal shoulder. Someone from behind Arlen cleared his throat. Arlen whirled around, his sister still in his arms. There stood Lord William of Somerton, a smile gracing his wise, older face.
“So, thou art the brave bard who darest cross swords with a Prince?” he asked.
“Ay, your lordship,” Arlen respectfully answered.
“I congratulate thee on thyine success. This mayst be a far shot, but would thou desire to win thy spears?”
Arlen’s eyes grew large. “Become a knight, sir? Ay, but your lordship must know that I am of no merit to be placed at such honor. Why, I am a peasant, born of a humble farm maid and a miller.”
The Duke stopped him with his hand. “Thou hast shown enough bravery and courage to equip two knights twice thy size. Kneel, bard.”
Arlen released his sister and knelt in the grass at the feet of Lord William and received his knighting there on the field where he won it. Arlen rose a different personboy, no longer a boy, but a knight.
“With a new lifestyle cometh a new name; what dost thou choose as thine?”
Arlen turned to his sister. “Any suggestions?”
Echo smiled. “Sir Alastair, defender of men.” Arlen reflected her smile and turning to the waiting Lord William, knelt again.
“I christen you Sir Alastair, Defender of Men. Rise, and take with both hands whatever life gives thee.”
Sir Alastair left the field that day accomplished and supported. His heart could have burst it was so full of joy and liberty. He had fulfilled his promise, and exchanged it for a knight’s pledge.
The events of the rest of the day following Arlen’s, or now Sir Alastair’s, knighting were few and simple. Yet the young knight remembered them for the rest of his life. Both he and Echo were invited to live with Lord William at Somerton, and the pair agreed. Prince Macnair apologized for his insolent behavior before and after the battle, and Alastair forgave him. Brother Barnabas actually revealed the mystery of the armor; it had come from the donations of several peasants, who had sided with the now knight. The Abbot and Brother Barnabas had sent the money to a neighboring castle and had the armor fitted for Arlen from the stock pile there, based on a shirt that Echo had provided.
Echo grew healthier and decided to live, not in dark stairwells and rooms, but out in the open air and light with her brother. Alastair proved Lord William and his name right by defending the Somerton people and castle for many years to come.